Kabir c. 1440-c. 1518
(Also known as Kabīr-Dās) Indian poet, mystic, and religious reformer.
The following entry presents criticism of Kabir's poetry from 1915 through 1993.
Kabir is considered a major figure among fifteenth-century Indian religious teachers. He rejected mainstream Hindu rituals and Muslim doctrines, yet his philosophies were influenced by both traditions, as well as by Sufi mysticism. A legendary figure in Northern India, Kabir is venerated as a social reformer of his day and a charismatic teacher whose works were adopted as sacred writings of the Sikh religion.
Kabir was born Varanasi Benares in Uttar Pradesh, India. The precise year and circumstances of his birth remain undetermined. Some sources say he was born before the beginning of the fifteenth century, circa 1398, while others set the date as circa 1440. The year of his death also oscillates between circa 1448 and circa 1518. Legends surrounding his birth and life variously describe him as the abandoned son of a widowed Brahmin woman and the product of a miraculous virgin birth to a young Muslim girl. He was likely raised by Muslim foster parents in a poor weaver's family. Although he rejected traditional Hindu rituals and strict Muslim practices, the influence of grassroots religious doctrine from each tradition is evident in his teachings. Calling himself “the son of Allah and Rama,” he incurred the wrath of religious leaders who had no interest in the blurring of political or theological boundaries between the two traditions. Kabir's continued teaching of a monotheistic spirituality that was neither Hindi nor Muslim earned him the affection of many in Northern India who advocated tolerance and unity despite more than two centuries of conflict among numerous leaders intent on dominating the political and religious landscape. Kabir's legacy as the supposed unifier of two major and opposing traditions led to his legendary status as a holy man and teacher.
Although his poems and sayings are considered foundational to the development of religious thought throughout India, Kabir is believed to have been illiterate and thus unable to record in writing his own thoughts and ideas. The vocabulary of his poetry is rough and unpolished; the metrical forms reflect the popular dialects of the uneducated masses who came to revere him. His disdain for sacred Brahmanic language is seen in the lack of literary ornamentation of his works. The authorship of the large number of works attributed to Kabir cannot be verified with any degree of certainty, but it is believed that they were probably recorded by disciples during and following Kabir's lifetime. These works are found in four compilations. The first to attract the notice of Western scholars was the Bījak (“Account”), which was compiled after his death by members of the Kabirpanth. It was considered the most important of his religious teachings. A second volume, known as the Granth (“Book”), was assembled at the outset of the seventeenth century and became the sacred writings of the Sikh religion. The Pamcvānīs is a collection of sayings of five important teachers of the day, including Kabir. Finally, the Sarbangī, a compilation attributed to Rajjab, a later Indian poet, also includes a collection of Kabir's verse; it remains unpublished, however. Kabir's works have been translated and edited numerous times since the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. They are characterized by popular literary forms such as padas—short, rhymed poems adapted from religious use from folksongs—and dohas—popular dialect lyrical writings sung or recited by the common people.
As influential as they have been in his native India, Kabir's works are not particularly well known to Western readers. In large part this is due to a lack of English translations of his verse and teachings. For much of the twentieth century, the primary translation available was the 1914 edition by Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. American critic Paul Carroll notes that in this edition Kabir's words sound Victorian, “sober and didactic.” By contrast, Carroll praises the appearance in the late 1970s of an edition of Kabir's works translated by American poet Robert Bly, in which the Indian poet's voice is that of “an ecstatic, generous saint.” Carroll further comments that in the Bly rendition, the poems are “clear and direct and mean exactly what they say.” Charlotte Vaudeville contends that it is inaccurate to portray Kabir “as an apostle of religious tolerance and of Hindu-Muslim reconciliation,” noting that what the tolerance critics read into Kabir's teachings is “a kind of rationalism which rejects absolutely every revelation based on an authority extrinsic to the human soul.” She acknowledges that “the greatest hurdle to be confronted by Kabirian scholars is the lingering uncertainty about the relative value and degree of authenticity to be accorded to any given verse.” Commentator David C. Scott writes that Kabir's “immense popularity throughout the Indian subcontinent is due as much to his mystical perceptions as to his maverick nature.”